The barbell deadlift is one of the best resistance exercises going. It helps to develop overall strength, site-specific strength in the back and legs, as well as stability and musculature through the posterior chain.
It can be seen in powerlifting meets as one of the big three competitive lifts (alongside squats and bench press), and variations on deadlifts feature prominently in events for other disciplines, such as Strongman competitions and CrossFit Games.
Aside from its use in competition, the deadlift is generally considered something of a benchmark in training and testing overall strength, as well as being a go-to exercise for many looking to develop mass through their backs and lower bodies.
When the deadlift is performed with feet around hip width apart (sometimes slightly inside or outside, depending on the personal preference of the lifter involved), with hands outside the knees and the barbell lifting from the floor, we call it the ‘conventional deadlift’. When in doubt, this is what people talk about when they talk about deadlifting. This is what most powerlifting meets will see and it is often the default for new lifters as they begin to learn movements and figure out what works for them.
When the feet are wide, far outside of hip width and often angled with the toes pointing outwards, heels slightly in, with hands inside the knees, it is a ‘sumo deadlift’. This is a very common variation on the classic deadlift. Though it won’t be seen as often, either in competition or training, it still has a great many uses and, as we will see, is more than a match for the conventional lift.
But which one is better, and what do we mean by ‘better’? In this article, we will look at the benefits of deadlifting in general, how they relate to conventional and sumo deadlifting specifically, how each works as a test of strength, and indeed how comparable they both are, as we discuss which should come out on top.
Let’s begin by talking in general terms- similar benefits can be gained from both the conventional and sumo deadlifts. This, in itself, should give you a clue as to which wins between the two (hint: they are both amazing.)
Both types of deadlift (in fact, pretty much any deadlift variation) will primarily target the muscles of the posterior chain. These include the lower back, hamstrings and glutes. However, they will additionally work the lats and traps in the mid- and upper- back, as well as the forearms, all very directly. Finally, they will work the quads, biceps, shoulders and core as secondary muscle groups. They really do give you a full body workout.
Because of this, both the sumo and conventional deadlift build great core strength and stability, as well as eliciting a great deal of hypertrophy throughout the body. We’ll go into this in more detail shortly.
Though we are perhaps more used to seeing heavy deadlifts (and, indeed, this is where they usually excel), deadlift variations can be performed at any weight range with benefits to be gained. Moderate weights, at high reps, will elicit hypertrophy, though core engagement and power generation will fall.
Deadlifts are really easy to scale. If range of motion is an issue, the barbell can be raised up, either for a rack pull variation (both conventional or sumo stance), or for a deficit deadlift from blocks. If grip is an issue, straps can be worn (even the best deadlifters use straps in the higher ranges, as grip will give out way before your posterior chain has had enough!) Finally, strength will always be an issue- that’s why we all enter into strength training to begin with. As a barbell move, this is very easy to scale: most lifters start off with a bare bar, or perhaps 5-10kg on each side, before adding plates progressively as the weeks progress.
Finally, any deadlift variation has fantastic practical carry-over. Stooping down, taking hold of something heavy, and standing up again to lift it, is one of the most basic, primal moves are bodies are built to do. Whether this is handling heavy shopping bags or luggage, picking up your children, helping to move furniture, or any other daily, common occurrence, the posterior chain’s ability to move under load is vital to long-term health and functionality. Training it to be as strong as stable as possible is arguably far more important than being able to bench twice your bodyweight or run a marathon.
What Muscles Do They Work?
Let’s take a bit of a closer look at the muscles involved in deadlifting- either conventional or sumo.
As we have seen, deadlifts work your entire body. Your legs are the prime movers. Your back muscles keep your spine neutral and allow you to control the bar. You core keeps the tension going into the load, allowing you to perform the movement without leaking power. Your arms keep the bar in your hands, under your control.
Due to the intensity of the deadlift, and the scale of the weights often used, pretty much every muscle in the body comes under some form of tension, especially isometric tension.
The muscles typically engaged and worked during any variety of deadlift include:
- Back: The back muscles all contract under load to keep your spinal column neutral as the weight of the bar tries to bend it. In addition, your latissimus dorsi are crucial in controlling the bar: they keep the bar within your centre of gravity. You erector spinae are crucial in keeping your spine controlled and stabilised, and play a fundamental role in posterior chain activation and movement.
- Legs: The legs are critical in managing a deadlift, and a large part of the posterior chain’s driving force comes from your lower body. When deadlifting, it is always important to drive your hips forwards and push your heels into the ground, actively recruiting your leg muscles. Your hamstrings and glutes will be responsible for the lower portion of your posterior chain, straightening your hips and allowing you to bring the bar upwards. Your quadriceps will aid, here, allowing you to straighten your knees and drive upwards. Your calves and, from here, your ankles, enable you to push that force downwards. Though the range of motion is smaller in deadlifts than in exercises like squats or lunges, the stimulation into your legs is still intense.
- Core: The deep core muscles are vital in achieving a good deadlift- without them, your body will never be able to make the most out of the power it generates through the limbs and back. The transverse abdominal muscles and obliques contract to support your lower back and your breath and brace will be what allows you to begin to shift serious weight.
- Shoulders: Your trapezius muscles contract to keep your shoulders stable and bring your body’s generated force to bear on the bar. Even your chest muscles and shoulders play a large part here, contracting to add support. In this way, deadlifts can help you to build a classical v-taper body shape, whilst building upper body stability.
- Arms: Arms are often overlooked as a beneficiary to the deadlift. However, your hands are the final link in the chain between you, your power generation, and the bar. They hold the bar tight, strengthening your grip and building up your forearms. This is why so many heavy lifts need to be conducted using straps- the overload into the grip is too much. Your will also biceps and triceps work in tandem with your shoulders, isometrically tensing to allow you to control the bar and bring it into your centre of gravity.
No matter the style of deadlift you use, these muscles will all play their part. They will all work hard, and will all be challenged: growth and strength increases will be elicited in them all.
Deadlifts: How To Do Them
We’ll run through this section with particular reference to the conventional deadlift. Realistically, it’s where most people start out- and should do- and it is easy to alter conventional technique for sumo technique with just a few small changes.
The basics of how to perform either a conventional or sumo deadlift are simple:
- Set up a loaded bar on the ground: The bar should be stationary and, ideally, at around mid-shin level. Most plates will allow you to achieve this. If going with a bare bar, consider using a couple of blocks.
- Walk to the bar and grab it: Stand with your mid-foot under the bar. Your shins should be a couple of inches away from it. Place your heels at hip-width, so slightly narrower than you will for squats. Point your toes ever so slightly outwards and bend over from the hip, keeping legs straight. Grip the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart, using either a hook, under-over (reverse) or overhand grip. Set up straps if needed.
- Bend your knees: Depending on your own mobility, you may need to do this before gripping the bar- this is absolutely fine, but try to get as much depth as possible from pushing the hips backwards. Drop into position by softening your knees until your shins touch the bar. Don’t let the bar roll away from your mid-foot.
- Lift your chest: This will activate your posterior chain and allow you to maintain a neutral spine position. Lift your chest a few inches, looking ahead and down, but maintain your position through the rest of your body. At this point, if you can, try to squeeze and activate your lats. Take your brace here, with a deep, belly breath.
- Stand up, pulling: With your brace intact and your lats activated, stand up. Drive your legs into the ground, push your hips forwards, and allow your upper body to control the bar as it comes up to just below hip level. Hold at the top if you can, before dropping it back down. Try not to either drop the bar or lower it under tension: it should be a controlled, fast descent, without being load bearing.
Of course, there is a lot more to it than this, but this is a decent starting point and a good way to cue yourself as you set up for each lift.
With both conventional and sumo deadlifts, the weight needs to be ‘dead’- this is where we get the name deadlift from. This means you are lifting a dead weight, from inertia, from the ground. Therefore, every rep has to start from the floor and end with the bar setting down on the floor, with no bounce in-between.
Most of what we have already run through applies equally to the sumo deadlift as the conventional deadlift. However, the sumo deadlift will make use of a wider stance, a closer hand position, and usually a much straighter torso.
The wider stance shortens the lifter’s leg range of motion: this reduces the range of motion of the whole lift in comparison with a conventional deadlift. When lifters report being able to lift more using a sumo stance than conventional, this is often one of the main reasons: they are not having to move the bar as far as a conventional deadlift requires.
In addition, as the sumo deadlift puts the lifter’s torso more upright, less strength is needed in the back muscles, particularly the erector spinae. Instead, it relies a little more on the quadriceps and adductors and a little less on the posterior chain muscles. The quadriceps are some of the largest, most powerful muscles in the body (hopefully you have realised this whilst ascending from a particularly heavy squat rep or two!) This is another reason that many lifters can handle heavier weight in the sumo deadlift compared to conventional.
This is also why novices should often start out with conventional lifts. Conventional deadlifts work the body far more globally, putting pressure through the back and posterior chain, rather than relying so heavily on the legs. Conventional deadlifts are better at developing overall strength and power, though we will go into this in more detail below.
Sumo Deadlift Technique
The sumo deadlift is named after sumo wrestlers- it mimics their wide legged, low stance. Sumo wrestlers adopt this stance as it is a mechanically very strong position- so too with the sumo deadlift.
This is the main difference in set-up between the sumo and conventional deadlift.
Rather than keeping the feet around hip-width, the feet are placed well outside of hip-width for the sumo deadlift. Though the amount varies between lifters, their preferences and body mechanics, some take a considerably wider stance than they would for squats, for example.
In addition, the feet will be turned further outwards in a sumo deadlift than they would for conventional- again, playing into that traditional sumo wrestler posture. Whilst a 10-15 degree angle is generally appropriate for a conventional deadlift, sumo deadlifts will be closer to 30-40 degrees.
Secondly, with the feet so wide apart, the hands will have to be inside the knees, around shoulder-width. The same grips (over-under, overhand or hook grip) can be used between the sumo and conventional deadlifts, and strap use will become inevitable at higher weight ranges.
Other than these changes- and the inevitable mechanical differences involved, set up and execution will be the same for both sumo and conventional deadlifts, with the same cues and same rules applying to each.
Sumo Deadlift Movement Pattern
Because of the changed mechanics involved in adopting a sumo stance, the body mechanics throughout the entire movement are altered. Though it remains the same basic move as a conventional deadlift, as mentioned above, the stance changes in a sumo deadlift cause different muscles to take different ratios of the weight and deliver different ratios of power. It also changes a lifter’s centre of gravity slightly.
We have seen the differences in the torso angle and the muscles used during a sumo deadlift, and we’ll go into more detail shortly on the differences between the two movements. However, for execution, a lifter performing a sumo deadlift needs to bear a couple of things in mind.
Firstly, they will want to sit back a little bit more than they would for a conventional deadlift. This will keep their centre of gravity where it needs to be- close at hand and as directly under their body as possible.
Secondly, thighs will want to drop deeper in a sumo deadlift than they would for a conventional. A conventional should never see thighs even drawing parallel to the ground. A sumo stance may enable this, or it may even enable a lifter to go below parallel. If this feels right, and the loading still hits the posterior chain as much as possible, this is absolutely acceptable.
Deadlifts: Common Pitfalls
There are some common mistakes that lifters often make with the deadlift, both conventional and sumo. Some of them will reduce the deadlift’s efficacy, some the amount of weight a lifter can move, whilst some will make the movement outright dangerous. It is therefore wise to avoid them all.
Common pitfalls include:
- Rounding or arching the lower back: Either will put undue stress in a mechanically insecure position into your spine and erector spinae, increasing risk of injury and stopping you from lifting to your full potential. Keep a neutral spine throughout any deadlift movement.
- Pre-stretching: This is common to all movements but will be particularly detrimental to deadlift variations. Static stretching before lifting can greatly increase risk of injury. Go for dynamic, explosive movements and go for a few warm up sets to prepare for your deadlifts.
- Incorrect foot placement: It’s common to see people with too wide a stance for conventional deadlifts, and too slim a stance for sumo deadlifts. As we have seen, a small change to your base can radically alter your overall body mechanics through a deadlift. Incorrect foot placement can put undue stress into your spine as your shoulders round to compensate. It will also be far less efficient, stopping you from being to lift to your full potential.
- Shoulder protraction: As noted above, you need to retract your shoulder blades (pull them back and together, squeezing them as you lift). This will help you to keep a neutral spine and will help you to control the bar. Lifters who fail to do this risk losing control of the bar, shifting it outside their natural centre of gravity, and hurting their spine.
- Extending legs too early: This is particularly common as the weight gets heavy. Lifters shoot their legs up too early and then leave their backs and hamstrings to do the work, rather than pushing the ground away actively using their legs synergistically with the lift. Obviously, you lose a lot of power doing this.
- Squatting: This should sound obvious, but it isn’t always. It’s kind of the opposite to extending legs too early and eliminating them from the lift. Every gym sees this every day: somebody sets up to deadlift and ends up squatting whilst holding a bar in a deadlift position, with the legs doing all the work. This shows incorrect hip movement, incorrect posterior chain activation, and incorrect posterior chain loading. Don’t squat with the bar: deadlift it as a pull.
- Jerking the bar: There’s nothing wrong with a jerk. It will build power and motor control. However, we’re deadlifting here. Make it a deadlift. Don’t try to yank the bar from the ground. All you will accomplish is rounding your back destroying your brace and leaving your core out of the lift. Take the slack out of the bar first, placing a little tension on the bar, pausing, then lifting. This will help you to engage your deep core muscles much more readily.
All of these mistakes apply equally to the sumo and conventional deadlift, showing you just how similar they are, and how many of the same mechanisms cross over between the two. Regardless of which lift you choose to focus on, eliminating these errors will keep you stronger, safer, and will ultimately make you a better deadlifter across the board.
Sumo vs Conventional: Why Choose Either One Over The Other?
Both sumo and conventional deadlifts are hardcore exercises that will make you stronger, fitter and more muscular if you incorporate them into your lifting regime. This being said, there are some crucial differences between the two.
As mentioned above, sumo deadlifts allow you to bring your thighs closer to parallel with the ground (or even below parallel) because of their wider foot positioning and the more open hip angle they bring about. As you might have realised, this will look a lot more like a squat than a deadlift in this respect. This means that they demand more of the quadriceps than the conventional deadlift, making them perfect for building mass through the lower body whilst still getting some of the benefits of a deadlift.
The is also more stimulation to the trapezius muscles during a sumo deadlift than during a conventional one, due to the closer hand position. This means that you will build the mass around your neck and upper back more efficiently by performing them.
Your torso will also be more upright during a sumo deadlift. Whilst this isn’t a benefit in and of itself, it can make the sumo deadlift far more comfortable, especially for those with any kind of balance or orientation problems (such as vertigo or inner ear infections).
The inverse will be true for a conventional deadlift. With the higher hip and thigh position involved, the quadriceps won’t do so much of the work. The wider hand position will mean the lats take more of the pressure in the back, compared to the trapezius muscles. All in all, this means a greater workout for the muscles of the posterior chain: the hamstrings, glutes, lower back and erector spinae.
However, these are all matters of emphasis. A conventional deadlift will still work your quadriceps and traps. A sumo deadlift will still work your lower back, lats and hamstrings. Both will work your deep core muscles about as hard as any exercise can; both will lead to greater overall mass and strength throughout your entire body.
Realistically, unless you have a pressing need to perform one over another- or if you particularly need to work some of the muscle groups mentioned above- both sumo and conventional deadlifts are actually pretty interchangeable in terms of training effect and effort involved.
Which is Safest?
Performed correctly, both are incredibly safe. Performed incorrectly, with some of the errors mentioned above taking place, both are pretty dangerous.
However, the sumo deadlift is perhaps slightly safer, especially for the lower back. The upright torso starting position makes correct spinal alignment a lot easier. However, as both load the back in pretty much the same intensity, and as both rely on good core strength and stability, this isn’t actually that much of a difference.
Rather than focussing on which is safer, focus on getting the basics right. The common pitfalls mentioned above should be avoided: this will keep you safe in whatever variation you choose. The basic set-up should be mastered: again, this will keep you safe, strong and efficient in any deadlift technique.
Which style should you pick?
The short answer is: try them both, see which you prefer and go with that.
Or, alternatively: include them both, using sumo deadlifts as a strong alternative when you want to, or as a great accessory at lighter loads on leg days.
Either will suffice. Both will serve you very well.
The main factors that will determine which is best for you, however, bare taking into consideration. Mainly, this is anatomical. It will largely come down to your leg length and your femur’s attachment to the hip: long legs, and particularly femurs, will often find conventional deadlifts quite challenging. Therefore, many taller people will favour the sumo deadlift, whilst shorter athletes will typically get more out of the conventional.
In addition, hamstring flexibility is a factor. Those with naturally shorter hamstring insertions (tight hamstrings) will also find a conventional challenging. Sumo deadlifts will often be more appropriate to them.
Your aims are also important in determining which to go with. If both are easy and accessible to you, choose your deadlift based on what you need to work on.
If you’re a powerlifter coming up to a meet, you will want to honour specificity and go with the conventional. Additionally, if you want to work posterior chain strength and mid-back size, go with conventional.
However, if you’re at a phase in your training in which you need to focus on legs and/or shoulders, the sumo deadlift is a perfect complement to both.
The takeaway from this
The deadlift is amongst the best exercises (if not the best) for building full body strength and muscularity. Regularly including heavy and medium weight deadlifts of any style will give you a denser, more solid deep core sections, a broader, deeper, stronger back, and a more athletic bearing.
Variation can be fun, and one deadlift may suit you over another, but the main thing you need to know is that, whatever form it takes, you should be deadlifting. Doing the same style over and over again is perfectly fine (as long as you honour the principle of overload).
Go for whichever is most comfortable, most natural, and most befitting your goals. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other: they are simply fit for slightly (slightly!) different purposes.